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No longer No. 1, Brownlie still makes soft draft landing

By Tom Haudricourt
June 10, 2002

brownlie
Bobby Brownlie
Photo: Ken Babbitt
PISCATAWAY, N.J.–When Bobby Brownlie looks back at the chain of events that robbed him of any chance he had to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, he doesn’t think he would have changed a thing.

"It was either you do or you don’t," he says of his decision to pitch through shoulder problems during his junior season at Rutgers. "If I had shut it down, people would have said, ‘What’s going on?’ But when I didn’t shut it down and then didn’t put up the numbers I had in the past, they still said, ‘What’s going on?’ "

Projected as the top prospect in the draft before the 2002 season began, the 21-year-old righthander watched his stock fall when he tried to pitch with biceps tendinitis incurred on a cold day against Boston College in his fifth start. As Brownlie’s fastball dipped from its normal 92-95 mph range to the high 80s, scouts started scratching their heads and the rumor mill began turning.

Brownlie thought he could pitch through the problem, but things only got worse. When he finished the year with three dismal starts, his chances of being selected No. 1–or in the top 10, for that matter–flew out the window.

Not to mention a lot of cash.

Considering the circumstances, Brownlie insisted he felt fortunate to go to the Cubs with the 21st pick of the first round. By that point, he had wisely decided not to play the tormenting "what if?" game.

"I can’t say I had a raw deal," says Brownlie, who tried to dispel any rumors of a serious injury by having an MRI before the draft. "I wasn’t surprised, because my numbers weren’t up to where they had been in the past. But I couldn’t ask for a better situation than to be picked by the Cubs.

"Now that I look back on it, I wouldn’t do anything different because I’m happy with the situation I’m in."

Wait a minute. Wouldn’t it be nice to be known as the No. 1 pick in the draft? Instead, the honor went to Ball State righthander Bryan Bullington, a fellow Team USA alumnus from 2001 who ranked behind Brownlie when the college season began.

"It’s a nice label to have," Brownlie says. "But being No. 1 or No. 21, it doesn’t really matter now because we get that clean slate. Whoever performs the best and gets the job done, whether they were the No. 1 pick or the 1,000th pick, they get to advance."

Beyond the uncertainty surrounding Brownlie’s physical status, some clubs might have passed because he is represented by agent Scott Boras, known for hard-line negotiations with his draft picks. As with many of Boras’ clients over the years, teams worried about meeting their financial demands.

But the Cubs showed last year after drafting Mark Prior that they are willing to pay what it takes to sign top prospects. And they have worked well in the past with Boras, whose clients include Corey Patterson and Bobby Hill.

"I’ve never put a dollar figure out there," Brownlie says. "The only thing that I’ve ever said is that I want to be treated fairly. That’s all I can really ask for.

"I don’t think (money) will be an issue with me. I’ve never really been through a negotiation period, so I don’t really know what to expect. You never know. We picked Mr. Boras because we think he’ll do what’s best for my career."

As for whether he thinks the Cubs got a bargain nabbing him with the 21st pick, Brownlie says, "I don’t look at it that way. There were a lot of really good high school pitchers out there."

The Cubs made no attempt to hide their excitement about getting Brownlie, whom they didn’t expect to still be on the board when their turn came around.

"He’s a power, curveball pitcher," Cubs scouting director John Stockstill says. "We’ve had him anywhere from 89, 90 to 96 (mph) over the years.

"We followed him his whole career. He’s a very good young man from a good family. We’re very pleased to have him at 21."

As for any worries about Brownlie’s health, Stockstill says, "All those were cleared. Everything is fine. He had a period of three to four weeks where he had the biceps tendinitis and his velocity tailed off, but the velocity came back at the end of the season."

Still, by the time draft day finally rolled around, Brownlie didn’t know what to expect. Getting a bit jittery about the event turning into a spectacle, the Brownlies decided at the last minute to exclude the media from their gathering at Buzzy’s, the family restaurant not far from Rutgers.

"It was a family decision," Brownlie says. "A lot of TV people and newspapers were making requests, and we didn’t want to pick and choose."

As the Brownlie clan gathered around a laptop computer that day and listened to the first round unfold on the Major League Baseball Webcast, there was a noticeable air of anxiety.

"Leading up to it, I was nervous," he says. "It was hard not to be. It was something I had worked for all my life, something you dream about as a kid."

One thing caught Brownlie by surprise–the speed with which first-round picks were made. After watching teams "on the clock" on televised drafts for the NFL and NBA, he wasn’t prepared for the frenetic pace of the baseball version.

"I didn’t realize it would go that fast," he says. "They just ripped through them."

The Brownlies tried to pick up a trend in the early going but were left somewhat puzzled. Signability played a role with some of the first picks, and when Cypress Hills High righthander Clint Everts of Houston was chosen ahead of highly regarded teammate Scott Kazmir, who slipped to 15th, Brownlie suddenly realized how unpredictable the draft had become.

"It was a weird draft," he says. "A lot of guys were jumping up and a lot of guys were dropping down. It was pretty crazy."

Before Brownlie knew it, the Cubs were up with the 21st pick and quickly announced the "redraft of Robert M. Brownlie." He had heard and read of the Cubs’ supposed interest, but Brownlie admits it was a bit surreal finally hearing his name called.

"It was like a wind came out of me," he says. "I could finally relax. And it was a team that I hoped would pick me. I was really glad."

Brownlie couldn’t help but project himself mentally into a rotation with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, the second pick in last year’s draft, and perhaps Juan Cruz. With a young rotation like that, maybe the Cubs will even sniff another World Series soon.

"That would be really neat to be on the same staff with those guys," Brownlie says. "I’m looking forward to the day I’m on that mound in Wrigley Field."

In a very short time, the draft-day gathering at Buzzy’s got into the spirit of Brownlie’s future employer. Bill Lehman, who coached Brownlie through much of his youth, went out and bought 19 Cubs hats. Younger sister Nicole, who will be a freshman at Rutgers in the fall, bought her brother a fitted Cubs hat and jersey.

"Everybody seemed to get a Cubs hat or jersey," he says. "I think the Cubs gained a couple of hundred fans after the draft."

Nine-year-old Michael Brownlie certainly grasped the financial aspects of his big brother’s situation.

"After they called my name, he said, ‘I’m going to Toys R Us and get anything I want,’ " his big brother recalled. "It was funny. Everybody got a kick out of that."

Later that day, the Brownlies retired to the family home in nearby Edison, N.J., to play host to a steady parade of friends and relatives. Bobby then hit the town with two Rutgers teammates, outfielder Val Majewski and shortstop Tim Sweeney, who also had reason to celebrate.

The Orioles drafted Majewski in the third round, and Sweeney’s name was called in the 20th round by the Expos.

"All three of us had just moved into the same apartment on June 1," Brownlie says. "We had just started living together. It’s sweet that all three of us have a chance to play in the pros."

In a first round expected to be dominated by high school picks, nine college pitchers were selected. Brownlie, once considered by consensus the top collegiate pitcher available, was the fifth to hear his name called.

Rather than mope about what might have been, Brownlie decided to look at the bright side.

"It has been an up-and-down year for me," he says. "Getting picked by the Cubs, I couldn’t be happier. This ended everything on a high note."

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Bobby Brownlie
So many rumors swirled around Brownlie’s shoulder that he and his advisers decided to have the MRI a few days before the draft. The examination revealed tendinitis and a bruise on the top of the humerus bone, but no structural damage.

"Everyone thought I was hurt," Brownlie says. "I had to prove I wasn’t. It was for my peace of mind, too. It was better to show I had tendinitis than nothing, because then everybody would have been wondering.

"It was very frustrating (to hear the rumors). If I was hurt, I wouldn’t have been pitching. I know the difference between pain and discomfort. What I was experiencing was just discomfort.

"Some of it was my fault, I guess, because I set high expectations for myself."

And there was good reason for those expectations. At the start of the 2002 season, Brownlie earned the right to be considered the draft’s top prospect with two sensational years on the mound.

As a freshman at Rutgers, Brownlie posted a 10-1, 2.55 record, and broke the school single-season record with 89 strikeouts. He became just the third freshman to be named most outstanding player of the Big East championship.

Brownlie then went to the Cape Cod League and dominated hitters with a league-high total of 73 strikeouts. He started the league’s all-star game and ranked as the league’s No. 2 prospect in a Baseball America managers’ survey.

Looking back at it now, Brownlie believes that summer on the Cape was when he first realized he had a chance to be something special.

"I grew up a little bit there. I kind of caught up to my body, filled out," he says. "My goal going up there was just to have a solid season. I didn’t even think about the scouts or anything. I was kind of nervous because I was wondering how I’d react playing against guys you see on TV in the College World Series.

"Ever since then, everything’s just been a dream. I guess I was a little bit of a late bloomer."

A broken thumb limited Brownlie to a 6-3, 2.36 record as a sophomore at Rutgers, but he boosted his stock considerably with a huge summer for Team USA. He went 8-0, 0.84 and held international opponents to a .176 average, and was named most impressive pitcher in the U.S.-Japan series.

That performance set the stage for what was expected to be a big junior campaign leading up to the draft.

Brownlie got off to a fast start for the Scarlet Knights, but pitched in unseasonably cold weather in his fifth start at Boston College and developed biceps tendinitis. Eleven days passed before he was allowed to pitch again.

Red flags went up with every scout on hand when Brownlie failed to strike out a batter in 62/3 innings at Notre Dame on May 4. He continued to struggle in his final two starts of the season, finishing with a three-game losing streak.

In those final three outings, Brownlie not only went 0-3, 8.64, he struck out just six hitters in 162/3 innings. His record dipped from 6-3, 2.14 to a final mark of 6-6, 3.50.

"It was a shame (the tendinitis) happened, but maybe it was a blessing in disguise," Brownlie says. "It was a little bit of a wake-up call for me as far as pitch counts and taking care of my arm.

"I just didn’t want to miss anything. I feel that we’re a better team when I’m pitching. Maybe that wasn’t the case at the end of the year, but I wasn’t doing too poorly before that."

Compounding Brownlie’s misery, the Scarlet Knights lost in 10 innings to Notre Dame in the Big East title game and were not invited to the NCAA tournament despite winning 20 of their last 28 games. Brownlie couldn’t help but feel he let his team down at the most crucial stage of the season.

"From his standpoint and our standpoint, it was a disappointing season," Rutgers coach Fred Hill says. "After he got tendinitis he changed his mechanics a little bit, and things didn’t go as well after that.

"What happened to Bobby is what happens to a lot of young men his age. You see all those radar guns and scouts, and you try to be perfect with every pitch. It kind of gets to you.

"For a 20-year-old kid, it is difficult. There are a number of people there every game, and it’s impossible not to notice. But the last couple of games he was throwing the ball much better. He just wasn’t getting the results.

"I don’t consider him damaged goods. What happened to Bobby happens to the best of them."

In addition to his shoulder miseries, Brownlie wondered if he wore himself down with two consecutive years of pitching without much of a break, including his stints in the Cape Cod League and with Team USA.

"I’ve gone way over a year without stopping," he says. "I really never gave my arm a chance to rest. It might have been a combination (of the cold weather in Boston and the workload).

"I was trying to stay in shape so much. If I could do it over again, I probably would have taken a month off from throwing over the winter."

In the days before the draft, Brownlie tried to relax and clear his mind. He let his father Rob and his advisers do the talking to the major league clubs that called, getting away to spend some idle time at Belmar Beach, a popular college hangout at the Jersey shore.

After taking time to get his head straight, Brownlie decided to be happy with whatever transpired on draft day.

"I was drafted in the 26th round in high school (by the Rockies)," says Brownlie, who caught the attention of pro scouts when he started throwing 90 mph at Edison (N.J.) High. "When I came to Rutgers, my goal was to go higher than that. That’s all I wanted to do. I know I’ve improved myself in college.

"Just because I had three bad games at the end of my junior year, it’s not going to erase what I did the previous 21/2 years. I’m still going to be a professional baseball player. That’s all I ever dreamed about."

Despite the late-season swoon that dropped Brownlie’s stock, Hill expressed no doubt about his star pitcher’s potential.

"He’s going to have a great career. There’s no question in my mind," says Hill, who credited Rutgers pitching coach Tom Baxter for playing a big role in Brownlie’s development. "I consider him a diamond in the rough.

"What sets him apart is his poise on the mound and his competitive nature. I think he’ll move fast through the minor leagues. He could get to the big leagues very fast.

"He came in pretty mature, but from a personal standpoint, he gained a lot of maturity the past few years. And from a technical standpoint, he did a great job of improving his mechanics."

Now Brownlie will wait to see how negotiations proceed with the Cubs. He needed some down time anyway to allow his shoulder to recover from the tendinitis and bone bruise, but has every hope of pitching again this summer as a professional.

"I’d definitely like to play some more this year," he says. "I want to get signed and start my career. I can’t wait to pitch again.

"I’m a little antsy right now. I’m anxious to see what happens."

Tom Haudricourt, a Baseball America correspondent since 1983, is a freelance writer based in Verona, N.J.

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